Victoria Cross.

Five Nights online

. (page 4 of 18)
Online LibraryVictoria CrossFive Nights → online text (page 4 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

needs money, when I am old I shall have it. I can buy then. But, ah!
when one is old it is all dust and ashes."

I looked at his thin shrunken form, poorly clad, at his face, deeply
lined with great furrows, made there by incessant toil and constant
pain. I felt my joy in Suzee to wither in the grey shadow of his
grief. Some people would have thought him doubtless an immoral old
scoundrel, and that he had no business in his old age to try to be
happy as younger men are, to wish, to expect it. But I cannot see that
joy is the exclusive right of any particular age. A young man or young
woman has no more right or title to enjoy than an old man or woman;
they have simply the right of might, which is no _right_ at all.

"Well, what do you want me to say or do?" I exclaimed impatiently.
"Take your wife back with you now, no harm has happened to her. Take
her home with you."

"Yes, I can take her body, but not her spirit," answered the old man

His tone made me look at him keenly. Hitherto I had felt sorry for
Suzee that she was his; now, as I heard his accent, I felt sorry for
him that he was hers.

A great capacity for suffering looked out of the aged face, such as I
knew could never look out of hers.

"If you lift your finger she would come to you! Promise me you will
not see her again, not speak to her; that you will go. And if she
comes to you, you will not accept her."

I was silent for a moment.

"My ship goes to-morrow morning," I answered; "I am not likely to see
your wife again. I shall not seek her."

"That is not enough," moaned the old man; "she will find a way. She
will come to you. Promise me you will not take her away with you; if
you do you will have an old man's murder on your head."

I moved impatiently.

"I am not going to take her away," I answered.

"But promise me. If I have your promise I shall feel certain."

I hesitated, and looked across at Suzee, a patch of beautiful colour
against the grey background of bent and aged trees.

What had I intended to do, I asked myself. I could not take her, in
any case. I had not meant that. A virtuous American ship like the
Cottage City would hardly admit a Suzee to share my cabin.

Then what did my promise matter if it but reflected the fact, and if
it satisfied him?

"You are not willing to promise," he said, coming close to me and
peering into my face; "I feel it."

I thought I heard his teeth close on an unuttered oath. Still he did
not threaten me. As I remained silent he suddenly threw himself on the
ground in front of me, and stretched out his hands and put them on my

"Sir I implore you. Give me your word you will not take her, then I am
satisfied. Better take my life than my wife."

I lifted my eyes for a moment in a glance towards Suzee and saw her
make a scornful gesture at the prostrate figure. The gold bracelets on
her arm below the yellow silk sleeve shewed in the action a contrast
to the old, worn clothing of the poorest material that her husband

I rose to my feet and raised him up.

"Get up, I hate to see you kneel to me. I have said I shall not take
your wife. As far as I am concerned, that is a promise. I have said

"Thank you," he said, inclining his head, and then moved away, not
without a certain dignity in his old form, lean and twisted though the
work of years had made it.

I dropped back into my place where I had been sitting and watched the
two figures before me almost in a dream.

He went up to the girl and spoke, apparently not unkindly, and some
talk ensued. Then I saw him bend down and take her wrist and drag her
to her feet.

Suzee hung back as one sees a child hang back from a nurse, but she
moved forward though unwillingly, and so at last they passed from my
sight, through the grey trees and the weeping moss, the thin old man
stepping doggedly forward, the pretty, gay-clothed childish little
figure dragging back.

Then all was still. The old grey wood was full of weird light, but the
silence of the night had fallen on it. Beast and bird and insect had
sought their lair and nest and cranny. Not a leaf moved. I felt
entirely alone.

"One never knows in life," I thought, repeating my words to Morley.

I felt a keen sense of longing regret surge slowly, heavily through
me. How exquisitely sweet and perfect her beauty was! And she had lain
in my arms for that moment, one moment that was stamped into my brain
in gold. I put my head into my hands and shut out the dim grey wood
from vision and recalled that moment. It came back to me, the touch of
her soft form, the smiling curve of the lips put up to me, the fire in
the liquid depths of those almond eyes, the round throat delicate as
polished ivory. The extraordinary triumph of beauty over the senses
came before my mind suddenly, presenting the problem that always
puzzles and eludes me.

Why should certain lines and colours in pleasing the eye so
intoxicate and inflame the brain? For it is the brain to which beauty
appeals. Youth and health in a loved object are sufficient to capture
the physical senses, but they do not fill the brain with that
exaltation, that delirium of joy, that divine elation that sweeps up
through us at the sight of beauty. Divine fire, it seems to be lighted
first in the glance of the eyes.

In an hour's time I left the wood and walked slowly shipwards. I felt
tired and overstrained, exceedingly regretful, full of longing after
that lovely vision that had come to me and that I had had to drive

The unearthly stillness combined with the brilliant, unabated,
unfailing light had a curious mystery about it that charmed and
delighted me. The sea, so blue and tranquil, sparkled softly on my
left hand, the pellucid blue of the sky stretched overhead, and all
the air was full of the sweet sunshine we associate with day. Yet it
was midnight. I pulled out my watch and looked at it to assure myself
of the fact. Sitka was wrapt in silence and sleep, my own footstep
resounded strangely in the burning empty streets.

I had to pass the tea-shop on my way to the ship. One could see
nothing of it from the street as the compound shut it off from view,
and across the compound entrance a stout hurdle was now stretched and

I passed on with a sigh, reached the ship lying motionless against
the quay, went down to my cabin without encountering any one, threw
off my clothes and myself in my berth, feeling a sense of fatigue
obliterating thought.

The night before I had had no sleep, and the incessant golden glare,
day and night alike, wearies the nerves not trained to it.

Suzee and almond eyes and injured husbands floated away from me on the
dark wings of sleep.

It must have been an hour or so later that I woke suddenly with a
sense of suffocation. Some soft, heavy thing lay across my breast. I
started up and two arms clasped my neck and I heard Suzee's voice;
saying in my ear:

"Treevor, dear Treevor, I have found you! Now I you will take me away,
and we will stay for ever and ever together. I am so happy."

The cabin was full of the same steady yellow light as when I closed my
eyes. Looking up I saw her sweet oval face above me.

She was lying on the berth leaning over me, supported on her elbows.

As I looked up she pressed her lips down on my face, kissing me on the
eyes and mouth with passionate repetition and insistence.

"Dear little girl, dear little Suzee!" I answered, putting up my arms
and folding them round her.

I was only half-awake, and for a moment the old Chinaman was
forgotten. It was all rather like a delicious dream.

"I am quite, quite happy now," she said, laying down her head on my
chest. "Oh, so happy, Treevor; you must never let me go. I love you
so, like this," she added, putting her two hands round my throat,
"when I can feel your neck and when you are sleeping. You looked
beautiful, just now, when I found you. I am sorry you woke."

Clear consciousness was struggling back now with memory, but not
before I had pressed her to me and returned those kisses. She had laid
aside her little saffron silk coat, and her breast and arms shone
softly through a filmy muslin covering.

I sat up regarding her; very lissom and soft and lovely she looked,
and my whole brain swam suddenly with delight.

Surely I could not part with her! She was precious to me in that
madness that comes over us at such moments.

I put my arms round her and held her to my breast with all my force in
a clasp that must have been painful to her, but she only laughed

Then my promise came back to me. It was impossible to break that. What
was the good of torturing myself when I had made it impossible to take
her. Why had she come here?

"Where is your husband?" I asked mechanically wondering if any strange
fate had removed him from between us.

"Oh, I put him to sleep, he will give no trouble. I gave him opium, so
much opium, he will sleep a long time."

"You have not killed him?" I said, in a sudden horror.

Her eyes were wide open and full of extraordinary fire, she seemed in
those moments capable of anything.

She put up her little hands and ran them through my hair.

"Such black hair," she murmured. "Ah, how I love it! I love black
hair. How it shines, how soft it is! I hate grey hair. It is horrid.
No, I have not killed him. He will wake again when we have sailed and
are far away from Sitka."

These words drove from me the last veil of clinging sleep. I kept my
arms round her and said:

"But, Suzee, I can't take you with me. I promised your husband
to-night I would not."

"That's nothing," she replied lightly; "promises are nothing when one
loves. And you love me, Treevor; you must love me, and I am coming
with you, you can't drive me away."

The ship's bells sounded overhead on deck as she spoke. The sound
seemed a warning. I knew our ship was due to leave in the morning; I
did not know quite when. If it left the quay with the girl on board,
the horror of a broken promise would cling to me all my life.

"I can't take you, it is impossible. You must go back and try to
forget you have ever seen me. You must go now at once, our ship is
leaving soon."

"I know," said Suzee tranquilly; "and I shall be so happy when it

I pushed her aside and got up from the berth. The cabin window stood
wide open. In the position the ship was it was easy to come in and out
through it from the quay. She must have entered that way.

"You must go," I said between my teeth. I was afraid of myself.
Overhead I heard movements and clanking chains and shuffling feet. Our
ship was leaving, and she was still on board with me.

"Go out of that window now, instantly, or I shall put you out."

"You will not, Treevor," beginning to cry; "you won't be so unkind. I
only want to stay with you; let me stay."

She was half-sitting on the edge of my berth, clinging to it with both
hands. She was pale with an ivory pallor, her breasts rose in sobs
under the transparent muslin of her vest.

The ship gave a great heave under our feet.

The blood beat so in my head and round my eyes I could hardly see her.
I moved to her, clinging to one blind object. I bent over her and
lifted her up. She was like a doll in weight. She was nothing to me.

As she realised my intention she seemed to turn into a wild animal in
my arms. She bit and tore at my wrists, and scratched my face with her
long sharp nails.

The ship was moving now and I was desperate.

I walked with her to the window and put her feet over the ledge.

We neither of us spoke a word. She clung to my neck so I thought she
must overbalance me and drag me through with her.

With all my force I pushed her outwards and away from me. Her hands
broke from my neck and scratched down my face till the blood ran from

"Don't struggle so," I warned her; "you will drop into the sea if you
do." For a blue crack opened already between the moving ship and the

Words were useless. She bit and struggled and clung to me like a cat
mad with fear and rage.

With an effort I leant forward and half threw, half dropped her on the
woodwork. She fell there with a gasping cry, and I drew the window to
and shut it.

The ship rose and fell now and the blue water gleamed in an
ever-widening track between its side and the quay.

I leant against the window glass and watched her through it. She had
struggled to her knees and now knelt there weeping and stretching out
little ivory tinted hands to the departing ship. My own eyes were
full, and only through a mist could I see her kneeling there, a
brilliant spot of colour in dazzling light on the deserted quay.

I turned away at last as we struck out on the open water. There, on my
berth, facing me as I stumbled back to it, lay a little yellow jacket.

I threw myself upon it and put my hand over my eyes, while the ship
made out beyond the fairy islands. And the gold night passed over and
melted into the new day.





I was back in London again, back in my studio with the dull grey light
of the city falling through the windows, and all the vivid glory, the
matchless splendour of the North lay like a past dream in the
background of my memory. But still how clear the dream, how bright
each moment of it, and how long to my retrospective vision! Was it
possible I had only been there three or four months? It seemed like as
many years. For time has this peculiarity, that joy and action shorten
it while it is passing, but lengthen it when it is past. A week in
which we have done nothing of note, but spent in stationary idleness,
how long and tedious it seems, yet in looking back upon it, it appears
short as a day; while a week in which we have travelled far, seen
several cities and been glad in each, though the gilded moments have
danced by on lightning feet, when we look back upon that week it seems
as if we have lived a year.

It was there, bright, radiant in my mind, the picture of those blue
days and golden northern nights, and how the light of the picture
seemed to gather round, and centre in a sweet youthful face with the
blue stone earrings, hanging against the creamy neck, beside the
rounded cheek, and the cluster of red flowers bound on each temple
against the smooth black hair!

I settled myself lower in the deep roomy armchair, and pushed my feet
forward to the blazing fire. There was still half an hour before I
could decently ring for tea, and it was too dark already to work. I
had had a hard and disagreeable morning, too, and felt I needed rest
and quiet thought. How the red flame leapt in the grate, and what a
rich, warm, wine-dark colour it threw all round my red room! I rose
and drew the heavy crimson curtains across the windows to shut out
their steely patches of grey that spoiled the harmony of colour. I
returned to my chair and glanced round with satisfaction. Fitted and
furnished and hung with every beautiful shade of red, my studio always
delighted and charmed my vision.

My friends said I had papered and furnished it in red to throw up the
white limbs and contours of my models, and this had something to do
with it, for hardly any colour shows off white flesh to better
advantage, though pale blue in this matter runs it close; but this was
not the prompting motive. Rather it was that in England where all is
so cold and tame and grey, from morals to colours, I liked to surround
myself with this glowing barbaric crimson, this warm inviting tint.

My eye in wandering from floor to ceiling rested finally on the empty
easel, the numerous white unused sheets of paper near it. I felt in
despair. Not even a sketch of a Phryne yet! Not even a model found!
Not even the idea of where to find one!

I had been seeing models all the morning, and how wearisome and
vexatious, and even, towards the end, how repulsive that becomes! The
wearying search after something that corresponds to the perfect ideal
in one's brain, the constant raising of hope and ensuing
disappointment as a misshapen foot or crooked knee destroys the effect
of neck and shoulder, produce at last an intolerable irritation. I had
dismissed them all finally, and they had trailed away in the rain, a
dismal procession of dark-clothed women.

A quarter of an hour of red stillness in that comfortable room had
passed, and the warmth and quiet of it had crept over me and into me,
gradually soothing away all vexations, when a knock came on the door
and in answer to my, "Come in," some one entered the room behind me.

"I am so glad to find you."

I started to my feet at the sound of the soft voice, and went forward
to the door.

"Viola! how good of you to come." I took both her hands and drew her
into the firelight which sparkled gratefully on her tall slender
figure and the fair waves of hair under her velvet hat.

"May I stay and have tea with you? I have shopping all the afternoon
and as I was driving past I thought I would see if you were in and

"I shall be delighted," I said as I wheeled another armchair up to the

"You are sure? You have nothing else to do?"

"Nothing, really nothing," I said, walking to the electric lights and
switching them on; "and if I had, I would leave it all to have tea
with you."

She laughed, such a pretty dainty laugh! What a contrast to the rough
giggles amongst the models this morning!

"Trevor! you are just the same as ever; all compliments. But I am
immensely glad you are not going to turn me out, for I am chilly and
tired and want my tea and a talk with you very badly." And she settled
down in her large chair with a sigh of content.

I came back to the hearth and stood looking down upon her. The light
was rose-coloured, falling through tinted globes, and soft as the
firelight. She looked exquisite, and she must have seen the admiration
in my eyes for she coloured under them.

She was wearing a dark green velvet gown edged fur and which fitted
her lovely figure closely, being perhaps designed to display it.

"You have come like a glorious sunset to a gloomy day," I said. "I
have had a horrid morning and been depressed all the afternoon."

"You have no inspiration, then, yet for the Phryne?" she answered,
glancing round; "otherwise you would be in the seventh heaven."

"No," I groaned, "and the models are so dreadful; so far from giving
one an inspiration, they would kill any one had. All last week I was
trying to find a model, and all this morning again. I would give
anything for a good one."

She murmured a sympathetic assent, and I went on, pursuing my own
thoughts freely, for Viola was my cousin and no one else knew or
understood me so well as she did. We had grown up together, and always
talked on all sorts of subjects to each other.

"The difficulty is with most of these English models, they are so
thick and heavy, so cart-horsey, or else they are so thin. The tall,
graceful ones are too thin, I want those subtle, gracious lines, but I
don't want sharp bones and corners. I want smooth, rounded contours,
and yet the outlines to be delicate; I want slender grace and
suppleness with roundness...."

I stopped suddenly, the blood mounting to my forehead. I was looking
down at her as she lay back in the chair. She looked at me, and our
gaze got locked together. A thought had sprung suddenly between us. I
realised all at once I was describing the figure before me, realised
that I was face to face with the most perfect, enchanting model of my
dearest dreams.

There was a swift rush of red to her face, too, as I stopped. Up till
then she had been quietly listening. But she saw my thought then. It
was visible to both of us and for a moment a deadly silence dropped on
us. Of course, I ought not to have stopped, but the thought came to me
with such a blinding flash of sudden revelation that it paralysed me
and took speech from my lips. Just in that moment the door opened and
tea was brought in. I turned my attention immediately to making it,
and what with asking her how much sugar she would have and pressing
her to take hot toast and crumpets, the cloud of embarrassment passed
and all was light and easy again. I dismissed the idea instantly, and
we did not speak of the picture. I questioned her about her shopping,
we recalled the last night's dance where we had been together, and
spoke of a hundred other light matters in which we had common
interests. Then a silence stole over us, and Viola sank far back in
her chair, gazing with absent eyes into the fire.

Suddenly she sat up and turned to me. I saw her heart must be beating
fast, for her face and lips had grown quite white.

"Trevor, I wish you would let me be your model for the Phryne."

Almost immediately she had spoken the colour rushed in a burning
stream across her face, forcing the tears to her eyes. I saw them brim
up, sparkling to the lids, in the firelight.

I sat up in my chair, leaning forwards towards her. My own heart
seemed to rise with a leap into my throat.

"Dearest! I could not think of such a thing! It is so good of you,

I stopped. She had sunk back in her chair. She was looking away from
me. I saw the tears well up over the lids and roll slowly unchecked
down her face.

"I should so like to be of use to you," she murmured in a low tone,
"and I think I could be in that way, immense use."

I slid to my knees beside her chair, and took the slim, delicate white
hand that hung over the arm in mine and pressed it, very greatly moved
and hardly knowing what to answer her.

"I shall never forget you have offered it, never cease to be grateful,

"There is no question of being grateful," she broke in gently, "unless
it were on my side. I should think it an honour to be made part of
your work, to live for ever in it, or at least much longer than in
mortal life. What is one's body? It is nothing, it perishes so soon,
but what you create will last for centuries at least."

I pressed my lips to her hand in silence. I felt overwhelmed by the
suggestion, by the unselfishness, by the grandeur of it. I saw that
the proposition stood before her mind in a totally different light
from that in which it would present itself to most women. But, then,
the outlook of an artist upon life and all the things in life is
entirely different from that of the ordinary person. It takes in the
wide horizon, it embraces a universe, and not a world, it sweeps up to
the large ideals, the abstract form of things, passing over the
concrete and the actual which to ordinary minds make up the all they

And Viola was an artist: she expressed herself in music as I did in
painting. Our temperaments were alike though our gifts were different,
and we served the same mystical Goddess though our appointments in her
temple were not the same.

As an artist the idea was, to me, simple enough, as a man it horrified

"I could not allow it."

She turned upon me.

"Why?" she said simply.

"Well, because ... because it is too great a sacrifice."

"I have said it is no sacrifice. It is an honour."

"It would injure you if it became known."

"It will not become known."

"Everything becomes known."

"Well, I shouldn't care if it did."

"By and by you might regret it. It might stand in the way of your
marrying some one you loved."

"I don't believe I shall ever want to marry. Do I look like a domestic
person? In any case, I am quite sure I shouldn't want to marry a man
if he objected to my being a model for a great picture to my own
cousin. Why, Trevor, we are part of each other, as it were. I am like
your own sister. What can it matter? While you are painting me I shall
be nothing, the picture will be everything. I am no more than a dream
or vision which might come before you, and you will give me life,
immortality on your canvas. As an old woman when all beauty has gone
from me, I shall be there alive, young, beautiful still."

"It is all sophistry, dearest, I can't do it."

"You will when you have thought it all over," she said softly, "at
least if you think I should do - are you sure of that?"

She rose and stood for a moment, one hand outstretched towards the
mantelpiece, and resting there for support. The velvet gown clung to
her, and almost every line of her form could be followed with the eye
or divined. The throat was long, round, and full, the fall of the
shoulder and the way its lines melted into the curves of the breast
had the very intoxication of beauty in them, the waist was low,
slender, and perfect, the main line to the knee and on to the ankle

1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryVictoria CrossFive Nights → online text (page 4 of 18)